Science and technology are both subjects with a high intimidation factor, and a reputation for being dry, obscure and best left to Ph.Ds. The average person may well feel they lack both the expertise and the attention span necessary to keep up with latest in science. Meanwhile, technology has so rapidly transformed every aspect of daily life, from dating to shopping to the job market, that it’s easy to lose track of the changes as they come, and to miss their larger implications.
But at a time when science has become politicized, the anti-vaccination movement has fueled a resurgence in diseases that once seemed close to elimination and cyberwarfare threatens both individual privacy and global democracy, being a scientifically literate citizen has never mattered more.
Here are eight podcasts about science and technology that are worth your time, whether you’re a novice or an expert.
‘Science Rules! With Bill Nye’
Bill Nye the Science Guy hardly needs an introduction — ever since the ’90s, he’s been a key figure in science education, working to make the subject accessible and even fun. Nye’s new call-in podcast continues his yearslong mission to prove that science is for everyone, and is a spiritual sequel of sorts to his recent Netflix show, “Bill Nye Saves the World.” Alongside science journalist Corey S. Powell, and a revolving door of expert guests, Nye answers listener questions on subjects which have, so far, included nuclear weapons, genetics and the nature of consciousness. Though the show is not overtly political, Nye is deeply aware of its context — per its synopsis, it aims to promote science “in a world of fake news, and real warming.”
While it’s accurate to say that “Reply All” tells stories about the internet, that description belies just how richly human and nuanced each story on this Gimlet-produced podcast is. Hosted by Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt, the show’s format varies week to week: Some episodes are deep dives into a single tech story — a case study of an Uber hack, the rise and fall of a YouTube star, a phone scam that becomes a gripping cat-and-mouse game — while others lean more heavily on the hosts’ banter and regular segments. In Super Tech Support, the team tries to assist listeners with particularly complex and strange tech problems, while in Yes Yes No, they pick apart mysterious memes, viral trends and other internet paraphernalia. Tying all of this together is the warmth and humanity of Goldman and Vogt, whose back-and-forth is as self-reflective as it is self-deprecating.
NPR has no shortage of options for the scientifically inclined — WNYC’s “Radiolab” is one of the most long-running and respected shows in the genre — but “Hidden Brain,” which began life as a segment on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” stands out for its consistently fascinating explorations of the mind. Each week, the host Shankar Vedantam digs into a different aspect of human behavior or society and examines the underlying science. A memorable recent episode delved into the psychology of awards, exploring the lure of prestige as compared to money, the impact of awards on productivity and how awards benefit the giver compared with how they benefit the recipient. Delivered with wit and lightness by Vedantum, “Hidden Brain” is digestible without ever being dumbed down, and embodies an open-mindedness that becomes infectious.
A world in which all animal products are banned? Where robotic law enforcement has replaced the police? Where bees have died out? These are just a few of the theoretical futures imagined in thrilling detail by Rose Eveleth in her solo podcast project. “Flash Forward” plays like a kind of evidence-based “Black Mirror”: Each episode starts with a short play set in the imagined future, then segues to Eveleth’s interviews with experts covering the pros, cons and scientific likelihood of the scenario occurring. No matter how extreme the example, Eveleth is always transparent about her sourcing and has a sharp eye for detail in assessing the implications of each future.
‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’
This long-running BBC radio show’s pitch-perfect blend of comedy and science is embodied by its hosts: the physicist Brian Cox and the comedian Robin Ince. Recorded in front of a live audience, each episode offers an irreverent yet informative examination of scientific subjects — like artificial intelligence, climate change or animal behavior — which are discussed by a panel of three guests alongside Cox and Ince. The twist: While two of the guests are generally experts on the subject, the third is a comedian who has little to no knowledge of science, creating a reliably hilarious imbalance that also keeps the conversation grounded in layman’s terms.
Despite the mind-boggling number of true crime podcasts out there, very few touch on the increasingly relevant subject of cybercrime. “Darknet Diaries” fills that void, chronicling you-couldn’t-make-this-up true stories of high-level hacks and corporate security oversights. The host, Jack Rhysider, combines his own compelling narrative description of the events with interviews or audio footage from people who lived through them. Though the episodes are often startlingly short, condensing stories into 30 minutes that could easily justify a full hour, Rhysider’s hypnotic narration and deep expertise creates results that are never less than gripping.
‘This Podcast Will Kill You’
A surprisingly fun deep dive into deadly diseases throughout history, this was one of the first shows to join the roster of the Exactly Right network, launched last year by the creators of the blockbuster true-crime podcast “My Favorite Murder.” Fans of that show will find a familiar balance of spiky humor and morbid subject matter here, as the hosts Erin Welsh and Erin Allmann Updyke dig into epidemics from polio to Zika, examining their history, biology and modern-day threat level. Though both are experts in epidemiology and disease ecology, Welsh and Updyke pull off the magic trick of making you feel, as you listen, like you could simply be getting drinks with two very smart friends. To that end, each episode kicks off with a cocktail recipe — like a “Quarantini” — before delving into the week’s disease.
‘Note to Self’
Manoush Zomorodi, a former BBC reporter, explores the impact of technology on daily life, and the ways it both connects and alienates us. Some episodes of “Note to Self” focus on practical matters like how to manage screen time for children and for yourself, while others take incisive new angles on stories you thought you knew, like the opioid crisis. A charismatic and compassionate host, Zomorodi has a knack for making the show zig when you expect it to zag. A recently republished classic episode about “online emotional escorts,” a service that lets users exchange texts with a supportive virtual girlfriend or boyfriend, sounds bleak in theory but becomes tender and uplifting as told here.
Starter episodes: “We’ve Gained So Much With the iPhone. What Have We Lost?” (June 28, 2017); “Is the Opioid Epidemic a Tech Problem?” (April 18, 2018)